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Copyright 1978 by The Associates 

of the Boston Public Library 

L c c Card No. 78-1445 

ISBN 0-89073-054-7 

Design by Lance Hidy 

Typesetting by Michael & Winifred Bixler 

Printing by The Meriden Gravure Co. 


Wick, Peter A. 

A handbook to the art and architecture of the Boston Public 

Bibliography: p. 

i. Boston. Public Library. 2. Library architecture Massachu- 
setts Boston. 3. Art Massachusetts Boston. I. Title. 
Z733-B75H35 9i7-44'6l /8-I445 
ISBN 0-89073-054-7 


This is a handbook to the art and architecture of the Bos- 
ton Public Library. A library is not just a building, but a 
building does stand for its library, and the Boston Public 
Library at Copley Square is not only a treasure house of 
millions of books, manuscripts, music scores, prints, etc. 
but the building itself is a thing of great beauty and sig- 
nificance. Built by and for the people some eighty-two 
years ago, this McKim, Mead and White designed build- 
ing has long been hailed as an exemplary public monu- 
ment, a work of art. Since 1973 it has been officially 
designated a National Historic Landmark. 

For generations, visitors from near and far have come 
to admire the elegance of the architecture and the beauty 
of its decoration : the murals, the sculptures, and its 
cloistered courtyard, a quiet oasis in the middle of a 
bustling city. But the splendor of the marble and the 
glory of the murals speak not only for the cosmopolitan 
taste and generous spirit of a people a century ago, but 
perhaps more importantly, they bear witness to the 
dedication and trust of a citizenry who believed in the 
raison d'etre of the public library, that it was "built by 
the people and dedicated to the advancement of learning." 

The Library is today still blessed with friends who be- 
lieve in the support of their public library. Among them 
are the Associates of the Boston Public Library who share 
their love for and pride in this institution and what it 
stands for. With gifts of money, collections, and just as 
importantly, their time and talents, these friends keep 
up the age-old Boston tradition in their reverence for 

learning, appreciation of art, and their desire and will- 
ingness to share these with others. This handbook is an 
anniversary gift from the Associates on the occasion of 
the Library's i25th Birthday. The Library is grateful to 
its many friends whose support makes this publication 
possible, and particularly to the officers of the Associates : 
Bruce Beal, Frances Howe and Charlotte Vershbow, as 
well as to Peter Wick, who generously devoted much 
time and shared his incomparable knowledge and insight 
in preparing this booklet for us, so that friends old and 
new will be able to discover (or rediscover) and enjoy 
this many-splendored building and all it has to offer. 

Yen-Tsai Feng 


This handbook of the Boston Public Library on Copley 
Square, which opened its doors to the public in February 
1895, serves as a visitor's pocket guide to the masterpiece 
of the architect Charles Pollen McKim, with a brief de- 
scription of the architecture and artistic embellishment 
of the McKim Building, and a selection of those works of 
art currently on view. The last comparable handbook 
was written in 1921, and last reprinted in 1939. The first 
handbook appeared in 1895, with fullsome descriptions 
of every detail of the building and especially the mural 
decoration. Perhaps on the occasion of the i25th Anni- 
versary of the founding of the Boston Public Library, this 
simplified handbook with its photographs by Richard 
W. Cheek will serve in some small degree to recreate 
the fervor, genius and creative energy that went into the 
epic of its building. 

P. A. W. 



1. The Boston Public Library, Exterior View 

2. The 1972 addition to the Library designed by Philip Johnson 

3. Detail of the Cornice 

4. Detail of the Entrance Gates, Copley Square 

5. Relief of the Library Seal by Augustus Saint-Gaudens 

6. Minerva, Keystone of Central Arch by Domingo Mora 

7. Vestibule with MacMonnies' statue of Sir Harry Vane 

8. Bronze Doors by Daniel Chester French 

a. Music and Poetry (left) 

b. Knowledge and Wisdom (center) 

c. Truth and Romance (right) 

9. Main Entrance Hall 

10. Mosaic Vaulting in Main Entrance Hall 

11. Colonnade of Interior Court 

12. Interior Court 

13. Memorial Lion by Louis Saint-Gaudens 

14. Main Staircase from Landing 

15. Second Floor Loggia with Muses by Puvis de Chavannes 

16. Second Floor Loggia 

17. Overdoor of Venetian Lobby with i6th century Stone Relief of 
Lion of St. Mark and mural supporters by Joseph Lindon Smith 

18. Bates Hall 

19. Detail of Entrance Vestibule to Bates Hall 

20. Trustees Room 

21. French Renaissance Mantelpiece, white limestone with carved 
arabesques, Trustees Room 

22. Detail of Italian Renaissance Mantelpiece, white Sienna mar- 
ble, Cheverus Room (formerly Treasure Room) 

23. Government Documents Room (formerly Periodical Room) 

24. Detail of Ceiling Decoration, The Triumph of Time, by John El- 
liot (1858-1925) painted in artist's studio in Rome, unveiled 
March, 1901 in Elliot Room (formerly the Teachers' Reference 

25. Delivery Room with Edwin Austin Abbey Murals, The Quest of 
the Holy Grail 

26. Edwin Austin Abbey, Round Table with fable of the Seat Peril- 
ous, from mural series of The Quest of the Holy Grail 

27. Delivery Room Mantelpiece with Abbey Mural, The Castle of 
the Maidens 

28. Sargent Hall looking towards north end, showing Hebraic por- 
tion of murals by John Singer Sargent, R. A. Sargent designed 
and decorated entire hall including architectural enframe- 
ment, the overdoor relief of dolphins, the pictures frames, 
medallions, and lighting fixtures 

29 John Singer Sargent Mural at south end showing Christian Por- 
tion with the Trinity, the Dogma of the Redemption and the 
relief Crucifixus 

30. Sargent Panel, The Synagogue, over staircase 

31. Sargent Panel, The Church, over staircase 

32. Detail of Sargent's Frieze of the Prophets with Hosea in white 

33. Sargent Panel, Our Lady of Sorrows, on the west wall 

34. John Singleton Copley, Charles I Demanding in the House of Com- 
mons the Five Impeached Members, oil painting, 1782-1795, in 
Cheverus Room (formerly Treasure Room) 

35. Portrait of Joshua Bates, copy by Eden Upton Eddis (1812- 
1901), English painter, of his original oil 

36. Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis 
(1725-1802), in Cheverus Room 

37. Hiram Powers (1805-1873), bust of Jared Sparks (1789-1866), 
replica of the original executed in Florence in 1859, in Memo- 
rial Hall, Cambridge 

38. Martin Millmore (1849-1883), bust of George Ticknor, (1791- 

39. Thomas Ball (1819-1911), bust of Edward Everett (1794-1865), 

40. Capt. Francis Derwent Wood, R.A., (1872-1926), bust of Henry 
James (1843-1916), 1914 

41. Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), bust of Christ 

42. Leopoldo Ansiglione (Italy, 1832-1899), Marble of Child and 

43. Antonio Canova (1757-1822), marble copy after, of Venus, a 
pendant to the copy of the Venus de Medici 

44. William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), Arcadian Shepherd Boy, 


1( i 






Above the helmeted head of Minerva on the keystone of the 
central arch of the Boston Public Library cut in bold raised 
granite letters is the simple statement FREE'TO'ALL. This is 
not the empty rhetoric of a proud citizenry, but the ringing 
truth. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes had struck the note in his 
declamatory poem at the corner-stone laying in Copley Square 
on 28 September 1888 : 

Let in the light! from every age 

Some gleams of garnered wisdom pour, 

And in another stanza : 

Behind the ever-open gate 
No pikes shall fence a crumbling throne 
No lackeys cringe, no courtiers wait, 
This palace is the people's own! 

Founded in 1852, first opened to the public in 1854, the Bos- 
ton Public Library is the pioneer of free municipal libraries in 
any American city supported by general taxation. Its collect- 
ing, circulating and lending policies are based on far-sighted 
principles of public education conceived by such founding 
trustees as George Ticknor and Edward Everett, supported by 
such enlightened city administrators as Mayors Josiah Quincy, 
Jr. and John Prescott Bigelow, and developed by such early 
Librarians as Charles Coffin Jewett and Justin Winsor. It re- 
ceived its first large gift from Joshua Bates, a London banker 
in the firm of Baring Brothers who started life as a poor, book- 
hungry boy in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The first library 






building in Boylston Street, on the site now occupied by the 
Colonial Theatre, was opened in 1858 with a collection of 
seventy thousand volumes. In 1895, with an expansion to six 
hundred and ten thousand books, it was removed to its present 
location in Copley Square. 

In 1972 a new addition, designed by the New York architect 
Philip Johnson, opened its doors, its main entrance facade fill- 
ing out the city block on Boylston Street. This spacious, elegant 
building, fully consistent with the artistic and operational de- 
mands of modern Boston, joined with the McKim building on 
Copley Square to form the Central Library comprising an ex- 
panded General Library of some 750,000 volumes on open 
shelves with a seating capacity of 1200, and a Research Library 
headquartered in the McKim building, with its more than 
3,000,000 volumes of printed books, maps, documents, news- 
papers, microtexts, recordings, prints, and manuscripts. 

The Library is supported by public funds from the City of 
Boston, with income from endowments used for acquisition of 
special library materials. It also serves as the headquarters li- 
brary of the Eastern Massachusetts Regional Library System, 
with additional support from the Commonwealth of Massa- 
chusetts. The control of the Library is vested in an unpaid 
board of five Trustees, appointed by the Mayor. 


One of Boston's proudest monuments, perhaps the most ad- 
mired, discussed and influential public building in the Ameri- 
can architectural evolution of the nineteenth century, the Bos- 
ton Public Library, facing historic Copley Square, marks the 
supreme achievement of its architect, Charles F. McKim, se- 
noir partner in the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White. 
The challenge to McKim was complex : to erect a civic building 
of commanding presence in juxtaposition to, yet not over- 
powering, the picturesque Richardsonian Romanesque of Trin- 
ity Church, the masterpiece of the Eighties. The solution was 
brilliant, resulting in the first outstanding example of Renais- 

sance Beaux Arts academicism in the United States, which set a 
new standard of scholarly taste and elegance. Serene classical 
horizontality and smooth white sparkling granite contrasted 
with the soaring irregular mass and rough-hewn ashlar of 
Trinity. The models for McKim's famed facade are three : La- 
brouste's Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve in Paris, Alberti's 
Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, and Richardson's Marshall 
Field Wholesale Store in Chicago. But the Library's elevation 
gained its own noble aesthetic, not through exterior expression 
of interior function, but through its proportion and clarity, and 
the chiseled precision of its details. Few buildings to this day in 
America have inspired such nobility of spirit nor surpassed the 
structural perfection of its stone cutting.* 


The exterior elevation facing Copley Square is 225 feet long 
and 70 feet high from sidewalk to cornice. The building is set 
on a broad granite platform raising it above the flatness of the 
square. It follows the general divisions of a Renaissance pala^o 
with a heavy lower story, in effect a high rusticated basement, 
supporting an upper story with smoother joints pierced by 
thirteen lofty window arches, which with the three central 
entrance arches below, counterbalance the strong horizontal 
lines of string courses, frieze, crowning copper cornice and 
cresting atop the red-tiled roof. The Milford granite blocks are 
grayish-white reflecting faint pinkish lights. A bold inscription 
cut in Roman capitals just below the cornice reads : 

* Royal Cortissoz wrote that to McKim "building materials were 
what pigments are to the painter; he handled them with the same 
intensely personal feeling for their essential qualities that a great 
technician of the brush brings to the manipulation of his colors, 
and he left upon his productions the same autographic stamp." 

The Boston Public Library was built by Woodbury & Leighton, 
the Boston contractors. The brickwork of the Interior Court was 
carried out by Norcross Brothers, the Worcester contractors who 
had built Trinity Church for H. H. Richardson. 





The Boylston Street inscription reads : 


The frieze on the Blagden Street side is inscribed : 


Above the frieze at the roofline is a noble cornice crowning 
the facade. The upper portion of the cornice is ornamented 
with a row of lions' heads, the whole topped by an elaborate 
green copper cresting, the motif of which, as in the seals over 
the entrance, is the regularly recurring dolphin, symbol of 
Boston's maritime status. The skyline of the pantiled roof is en- 
riched with a second copper cresting, and terminating at the 
corners of the building in handsome metal masts. 

3. Detail of the Cornice 

lUJUULtL ''*** IMMMM* jMMMMMm. Miff**. WMMMMm* 




On the platform flanking the front entrance of the Library, set 
into massive granite pedestals, are two heroic seated female 
figures in bronze (dated 1911), the work of the Boston sculptor 
Bela L. Pratt : that on the right personifying Art, and on the 
left Science with names of the world's most eminent artists and 
scientists carved on the granite blocks. Originally, these two 
groups had been assigned pride of place to the sculptor Augus- 
tus Saint-Gaudens who had played a formative role in advising 
McKim on the embellishment of the Library, and propound- 
ed the concept of an American Renaissance collaborative of 
the ablest architects, painters, and sculptors achieving a har- 
mony of the arts in an edifice proclaiming native pride and the 
public elevation of taste.* 

The soffits of the three entrance arches are carved with a 
double row of deep rosetted caissons or panels. On the key- 
stone of the center arch is sculpted the helmeted head of Mi- 
nerva, goddess of wisdom, the work of Saint-Gaudens and Do- 
mingo Mora. Each arch is enclosed with heavy wrought-iron 
gates and set off by the four clusters of large branched cande- 
labra which provide a dark and sweeping thrust against the flat 
masonry profile. Above, under the great central windows are 
three seals of the Commonwealth, of the Library and of the 
City of Boston, carved in relief in pink Knoxville marble. The 
central seal was carved by Saint-Gaudens as adapted from a de- 
sign for the library device by Kenyon Cox. It portrays two 
nude boys holding torches, acting as supporters to a shield 

* By May 1899 Saint-Gaudens had made working models: on one 
pedestal Labor, representing a man seated between two female 
figures of Science and Art; on the other, a male figure of Law be- 
tween figures of Power and Religion. Delays and ultimately death 
thwarted the completion of his commission. One notes on the ex- 
isting pedestals the classical device of the laurel wreath, a concept 
of Saint-Gaudens used throughout the Library, and carrying 
through the sculptor's own work and supervisory role, as in the 
Unknown Soldier's Tomb in Arlington Cemetery. 







5. Relief of the Library Seal by Augustus Saint-Gaudens 

6. Minerva, Keystone of Central Arch by Domingo Mora 

which bears an open book and the dates of founding and in- 
corporation of the Library. Above is the motto Omnium lux 
Civium ("The Light of all Citizens"), while in the background 
are dolphins and laurel branches. The thirty-three granite 
medallions in the spandrels of the window arches on the three 
facades contain the trade devices of early printers carved by 



The floors, walls and vaulted ceiling are of pink Knoxville mar- 
ble; the floor is inlaid with patterns of brown Knoxville and 
Levanto marble. The three doorways leading to the Main En- 
trance Hall are copied from the entrance to the Temple of 
Erectheus on the Acropolis of Athens. 

The bronze statue in the deep niche on the left as one enters 
the vestibule is by Frederick MacMonnies. The richly dressed, 
dashing cavalier is a representation of Sir Harry Vane, youth- 
ful Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 and 1637. 
An aristocrat, but also a Puritan, he was beheaded in 1662, in 
England, for rebellion against the King.* 

The six bronze doors, each weighing fifteen hundred pounds 
apiece, are the work of the sculptor Daniel Chester French 
with allegorical figures arranged in pairs: Music and Poetry 
(left), Knowledge and Wisdom (center), and Truth and Romance 
(right).* In their day, this decorative abandonment of the 
broad surface of metal to draped human figures, about six feet 
high, carried relief sculpture into an advanced realm by their 
lack of enframement or pannelling, and by their shallow relief 
which never exceeded i% inches. The figures, holding aloft 
their attributes, with rhythmic folds of drapery, combine 
American idealism with the elegance of the Second Empire 


This low hall, divided into three aisles by heavy pieces of Iowa 
sandstone, is of Roman design. The mosaic ceiling, arched in 
the center aisle and with vaulted domes in the side bays, is 
decorated with a vine-covered trellis and inscribed with the 

* The statue was presented to the Library by Dr. Charles G. Weld 
in honor of James Freeman Clark, D. D., an eminent Unitarian 
minister who was,at the time of his death, a Trustee of the Library. 

* The superb castings are by the John Williams Foundry, and were 
installed by January 1905. 

7. Vestibule with MacMonnies' statue of Sir Harry Vane 


8. Bronze Doors by Daniel Chester French 
a. Music and Poetry 


8b. Knowledge and Wisdom 


8c. Truth and Romance 

names of six illustrious Bostonians : Pierce, Adams, Franklin, 
Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow. In the pendentives of 
the domes are the names of twenty-four more Boston worth- 
ies the theologians, Channing, Parker, Mather, and Eliot; the 
reformers, Sumner, Phillips, Mann, and Garrison; the scien- 
tists, Gray, Agassiz, Rumford, and Bowditch; the artists, All- 
ston, Copley, Stuart, and Bullfinch; the historians, Parkman, 
Motley, Bancroft, and Prescott; the jurists, Webster, Choate, 
Shaw, and Story. 

The floor is of white Georgia marble, inlaid in the center 
aisle with brass intarsia representing the symbols and signs of 
the zodiac, an inscription commemorating the founding of the 
Library (1852) and the beginning of the construction of the 
Copley Square building (1888), the Library seal, and a laurel 
wreath with the names of eight men prominently connected 
with the establishment and early history of the Library. They 
include three early trustees, Edward Everett, John Prescott 
Bigelow (who was earlier Mayor of Boston), and George Tick- 
nor; Josiah Quincy, Jr., Mayor of Boston; Joshua Bates and 

9. Main Entrance Hall 

10. Mosaic Vaulting in Main Entrance Hall 

ii. Colonnade of Interior Court 

Robert C. Winthrop, early benefactors; Charles Coffin Jewett, 
the institution's first great librarian (1858-1868); and Alexan- 
der Vattemare, the ubiquitous Frenchman whose zeal for the 
international exchange of books helped to stir the ferment that 
led to the founding of the Library. 



Main access to the Interior Court is from the two side corridors 
off the Entrance Hall. One steps onto an arcaded promenade of 
white marble framing three sides of a rectangular green par- 
terre and reflecting pool, in its perfect proportions a near copy 
of the arcade of the first story of the Palazzo della Cancelleria 
in Rome. The marble of the arches, cornice and parapet comes 
from Georgia; once pure white, it is slowly turning pale gold; 
the marble of the columns comes from Tuckahoe, New York, 
today a soft gray-white. The floor of the arcade is set off in a 
herringbone pattern of red brick banded with marble. The 
ceiling is vaulted in plaster, while the inner walls are of granite 
sparsely pierced by two tiers of windows, the lower tier cov- 
ered with iron grilles. The upper walls of the courtyard are of 
yellowish-gray brick of a long thin module, skillfully laid, with 
trim of Milford granite. 

In the granite walls of the arcade are four memorials in 
bronze : a bust of General Francis A. Walker, once a Trustee of 
the Library, by Richard E. Brooks; a medallion portrait of 
Robert C. Billings, one of the Library's benefactors, by Augus- 
tus Saint -Gaudens; a tablet in memory of Thomas Sergeant 
Perry, who "enriched this Library by his wise counsel and his 
rare learning during half a century"; and a tablet to commem- 
orate the employees of the Library who served in World War I. 


From the Entrance Hall opens the Main Staircase which struck 
Henry James for "its amplitude of wing and its splendour of 
tawny marble, a high and luxurious beauty." The walls are 
sheathed in variegated yellow Sienna marble veined in black, 
which was specially quarried for the Library. With the sun- 
light pouring in from the three high arched windows above the 
landing looking on the Court, the glowing color effect of yel- 
low, saffron, topaz and amber blend in a surface of indescrib- 
able richness. The steps are of ivory-gray French echaillon mar- 


13. Memorial Lion 
by Louis Saint- 

ble, mottled with fossil shells. The deeply coffered ceiling is of 
plaster, cream colored and light blue; from it hangs a spherical 
chandelier of bronze and cut glass. 

The floor of the landing is inlaid with hexagonal and dia- 
mond-shaped patterns of red-streaked Numidian marble from 
Africa. Centered on the landing are heavy oak doors with 
carved panels leading out to a balcony overlooking the Interi- 
or Court. Guarding the landing at the turn of the stairs are the 
two regal couchant lions carved from solid blocks of unpol- 
ished Sienna marble, the work of Louis Saint-Gaudens, brother 
of Augustus; each is a memorial to the men of the two Massa- 
chusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments who fell in the Civil 
War. Lettered in bronze on the pedestals are the names of bat- 
tles and campaigns in which the regiments participated. 


14- Main Staircase from Landing 


On mounting the upper flight of the Main staircase from the 
landing, one is arrested by the painted wall decorations by 
Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), the cycle of Arcadian allegor- 
ies commissioned by the Library from France's greatest master 
of mural decoration, which though executed in his seventy- 
second year, showed no failing power in perfecting this diffi- 
cult assignment, fresh as he was from the triumphant success 
of his murals in the Hotel de Ville in Paris. As seen through the 
five-arched loggia of McKim's second floor corridor, a vestibule 
to the Main Reading Room, these serene decorations are in 
complete classical harmony with their architectural setting. 
The main panel Les Muses Inspiratrices Acclament Le Genie, Mes- 

15. Second Floor Loggia with Muses by Puvis de Chavannes 

sager de Lumiere ("The Muses of Inspiration welcoming the 
Spirit of Light"), like all the Library murals is painted on can- 
vas affixed to the wall, and is approximately 20 feet high by 40 
feet long. It represents the nine Muses of Greek mythology 
flying upward from the olive and laurel groves of the Hill of 
Parnassus to acclaim the nude youth representing the Spirit of 
Enlightenment. The aerial quality and poetic ambience of 
these silvery white-clad figures set against the pale tones of 
green earth, blue water and ethereal sky, uplifts the imagina- 
tion with a breadth and grandeur that sets the aspirational 
theme of the Library's programme. 

The eight smaller panels in the upper arches of the staircase 
wall represent the main disciplines of poetry, philosophy and 
science, said to conform rationally to the Library's catalogue 
classifications : on the right, Pastoral, Dramatic and Epic Poet- 
ry; on the left, History, Astronomy and Philosophy; on the 
wall to left and to right of the window, Chemistry and Physics.* 

The floor of the Chavannes Gallery (recently replaced in 
close conformity with the original specifications) is a pattern of 
yellow Verona, gray Bottichino, dark gray Aldorado and red- 
dish gray Chiampo Perlato marbles. 

* "It was a happy and liberal thought," as Fenollosa said, "to call . 
to this our first American Pantheon, a master of that old world in 
which ours had root." 

The last of the panels was installed in October 1896: The Muses 
canvas is signed P. Puvis de Chavannes 95; Epic Poetry is signed P. 
Puvis de Chavannes Paris 1896. 

The contract signed by the Trustees and artist was dated July 7, 
1893. The artist's fee was 250,000 francs ($50,000) paid in install- 
ments from 1893 to 1896 from City appropriations for the building 
and its decoration. 

In a letter to Sargent dated 19 December 1896, McKim wrote: 
"The Chavannes work is superb in its stately proportions and high 
ideals, carried out with a breadth that easily makes him a master of 
his art. The public have hailed it by common acclaim. He has made 
it his staircase rather than that of McKim, Meade & White, and I 
am sure that it cannot fail to deeply impress you." 

i6. Second Floor Loggia 



Bates Hall, named after the first great benefactor of the Li- 
brary, serves as the Main Reading Room, and is entered 
through the central door off the Staircase Corridor (Puvis de 
Chavannes loggia). Even by today's standards one is impressed 
by the majestic scale of this Roman hall (218 feet long x 42*72 
feet wide x 50 feet high) with its rich barrel vault running the 
full length of the Copley Square facade and lighted by fifteen 
arched and grilled windows. The ends of the Hall are en- 
closed by vaulted half-domes. The sandstone used in the walls 
is from Amherst, Ohio; the floor is terrazzo bordered by yel- 
low Verona marble; the Hall is surrounded by bookcases of 


I? 11 

17. Overdoor of Venetian Lobby with i6th century Stone Relief of 
Lion of St. Mark and mural supporters by Joseph Lindon Smith 


i8. Bates Hall 


English oak standing about ten feet high,* erected on a base of 
red Verona marble, and set off by a pantheon of white marble 
busts representing great authors and eminent Bostonians; in 
the high frieze carved in gilt letters are the names of the 
world's most illustrious thinkers and artists. Over the central 
doorway is a richly carved balcony of Indiana limestone, while 

* The carpentry work in the Public Library was done by Ira G. 
Hersey, whose factory was in Cambridgeport. It included the wain- 
scoting of the Delivery Room, the panelled oak doors throughout 
the building, the wainscot at the south end of Bates Hall, and the 
miles of shelving. 

The firm of Mellish, Byfield & Co. of Boston received the con- 
tract for the furniture, consisting of tables, catalog cases, news- 
paper and periodical stands, desks, chairs, etc. ; also the oak screens 
at either end of Bates Hall. 

19. Detail of Entrance Vestibule to Bates Hall 

20. Trustees Room 

the ornate doors at the ends of the Hall on the same inner wall 
are carved of black Belgian and Alps green serpentine marble 
with columns crowned by bronze Corinthian capitals; in the 
adjoining bays are two Renaissance mantels of sandstone and 
red Verona marble. 

McKim and Saint-Gaudens had selected Whistler to paint 
the enframed panel at the Boylston Street end of the Hall but 
negotiations progressed so badly that the contract was with- 
drawn. The commission was then offered to John LaFarge but 
his scheme likewise failed to materialize and the ill-fated mu- 
ral remains blank to this day. 


21. French Renaissance Mantelpiece, white limestone with carved 
arabesques, Trustees Room 

22. Detail of Italian Renaissance Mantelpiece, white Sienna marble 
Cheverus Room (formerly Treasure Room) 




23. Government Documents Room (formerly Periodical Room) 


24. Detail of Ceiling Decoration, The Triumph of Time, by John El- 
liot (1858-1925) painted in artist's studio in Rome, unveiled March, 
1901 in Elliot Room (formerly the Teachers' Reference Room) 



From the Puvis de Chavannes Vestibule one passes to the right 
through the small red Pompeian Lobby into the somber rich- 
ness of the Delivery Room where the circulation desk for the 
Research Library is situated. Here the treatment is based on 
Venetian models of the Early Renaissance with a high wain- 
scot paneling of oak, the heavily beamed ceiling decorated in 
the manner of the library of the Doge's Palace in Venice, the 
doorways and fireplace mantel with massive projecting entab- 
latures and flanking Corinthian pilasters in a blood red rouge 
antique marble (the columns in green and red Levanto).* In the 
middle of the highly polished fireplace lintel is a laurel wreath 
carved in delicate relief with flying streamers containing the 
date MDCCCLII (1852), that of the founding of the Library. The 
floor is laid in contrasting squares of gray Istrian and red 
Verona marble. 

The eight foot frieze between the wainscot and the ceiling is 
occupied by the Arthurian cycle of murals called the Quest of 
the Holy Grail, painted by the American artist resident in Eng- 
land, Edwin Austin Abbey, R. A. It was Abbey who designed 
the room as a setting for his colorful medieval romances drawn 
from episodes of the life of Sir Galahad and the knights of the 
Round Table based principally on Tennyson's "Idylls of the 
King." Here is a pictorial realism which has raised the genre of 
narrative illustration to a monumental scale of brilliant and 
dramatic pageantry, reflecting the high level of Pre-Raphaelite 
painting in England, and spurring the young man's fancy to 
chivalrous achievement. 

* All the marble work in the Boston Public Library with the ex- 
ception of that in the Grand Staircase was done by Bowker, Torrey 
& Co., Chardon Street, Boston. All the shaping and carving of the 
marble were done in the workrooms of the firm. The same firm 
executed the richly-carved balcony of Indiana limestone in Bates 
Hall, and the floor, wainscot and balustrades of Yorkshire and Am- 
herst sandstone in Sargent Hall. 

27. Delivery Room Mantlepiece with Abbey Mural, The Castle of 
the Maidens 


The large central panel (No. in) over the book delivery desk 
represents the Round Table and the curious fable of the "Seat 
Perilous" in which no man has yet sat with safety. The young 
Sir Galahad, knighted by Arthur, has sworn a vow to be 
worthy to take his place with the Companions of the Order 
seated in Arthur's hall. Sir Galahad, robed in red, is led by Jo- 
seph of Arimathea, an old man cloaked in white. King Arthur 
rises with bowed head from his canopied throne, while the 
knights raise the cross-shaped hilts of their swords in salute to 
the challenger. Overhead hovers a seraphic host of angels. 
Throughout the cycle Sir Galahad is clothed in red, symbolic 
of purity and enabling the spectator to readily identify the pro- 
tagonist. In the process of installation, Abbey felt it necessary 
to build up his gilded halos in plastic relief to give sharper def- 
inition and enrichment to his design, a technique recom- 
mended by Sargent.* 

In 1896, soon after the opening of the Library, Ernest Fenol- 
losa wrote : "The significance of the mural painting in the Bos- 
ton Public Library should now be plain. Here we have estab- 
lished the first great centre of a future civic series. Here the 
principle is first openly, and on a large scale, acknowledged by 
the public authorities. By their act, and by this first blaze of 
achievement, we set Boston as the earliest of the seats of public 
pilgrimage, the veritable Assist of American art" 

* Writing to Alma Tadema from New York on May 18, 1895 Ab- 
bey says : "We had a great time in Boston. I wish you could see the 
things in place John's [Sargent's] looks stunning. You see it from 
a great distance below, and he has gilded the whole interior of the 
space and it is all lighted by a strong reflected light; it gains tre- 
mendously and as a conception is for the first time complete. We 
both suffered, as I have said, fearfully from the heat, working on 
scaffolds under the ceiling I in a room crowded all day with peo- 
ple breathing hard. I think my affair looks better than it ever did 
before although it has masses of detail which tell as nothing. I am 
pleased that it looks right in scale. I have learned a great deal see- 
ing it in place and shall do the rest of it with greater confidence. 
Masses of tones tell, not detail, nor light and shade . . ." 



At the north end of the Puvis de Chavannes loggia one ascends 
to the upper floor of the Library by an enclosed stairway of 
gray sandstone adorned only by handrails of Alps green mar- 
ble.* From the landing halfway up, a door opens on the bal- 
cony overlooking Bates Hall. One emerges on a dimly-lit 
vaulted corridor off which one enters the Albert H. Wiggin 
Gallery of Prints and Drawings, the Cheverus Room housing 
the Joan of Arc Collection donated by John Cardinal Wright, 
and the Charlotte Cushman Room. This long narrow hall, its 
height greater than its width, was specially reserved for the 
mural decorations of John Singer Sargent, R. A., who devoted 
thirty years of thought and labor in the execution of the se- 
quence of panels on Judaism and Christianity, and himself de- 
signed the somber churchly setting in sandstone with its gilded 
architectural enframement. One must be aware that Sargent 
looked upon his mural decorations as the supreme achieve- 
ment of his career, transcending his portraiture, and fulfilling 
the ultimate expression of his life-work. The work as it stands 
was placed in position in four installments : the paintings at the 
north end of the hall in 1895, the south end wall in 1903, the 
niches and vaulting at the south end and the lunettes along the 
side wall in 1916, and the two panels over the staircase in 1919. 

* At the foot of the steps is a memorial tablet set into the wall, 
dedicated on March 3, 1931 by the Boston Society of the American 
Institute of Architects : 


1847 ARCHITECT 1909 







4 6 

The unveiling of Sargent's pagan series on the north wall, 
representing the Children of Israel beneath the yoke of their 
oppressors, left a startling impression of modernity, with their 

28. Sargent Hall looking towards north end, showing Hebraic por- 
tion of murals by John Singer Sargent, R. A. Sargent designed and 
decorated entire hall including architectural enframernent, the 
overdoor relief of dolphins, the pictures frames, medallions, and 
lighting fixtures 


blend of Egyptian and Assyrian styles combined with gilded 
Byzantine casts applied in relief to the surface. The haunting 
intensity and terribilitd of the Pharoah against a grayish-blue 
and flaming ground, and the Assyrian monarch standing in re- 
gal splendor, with the Phoenician seductress Astarte on the 
ceiling vault, had never been seen on a wall before. 

Less complex and decoratively elaborate is the Frieze of the 
Prophets below the symbolically-charged lunette. The plastic 
realm of these heroic figures in classic gestures and poses made 
them readily comprehensible within the human scheme of 
things. The central figure is Moses holding the tablets brought 
down from Sinai. Sargent had devoted thirty years to their 
study and execution using a succession of models and sketches 
in charcoal and oil plotting the drapery. He had induced 
Coventry Patmore to pose for Ezekiel, the dominant figure in 
a white hooded cloak in the group to the left of Moses. He also 
engaged Angelo Colarossi, the leading London model whom 
he shared with Abbey.* 

The opposite south end of the hall, not completed until 1903, 
sets forth the Christian message of the Dogma of the Redemp- 
tion. The powerful gilded Crucifixus modelled in bold relief is 
the binding motif combining the upper lunette showing the 
enthroned Persons of the Blessed Trinity with the Frieze of An-, 
gels below. A great red cope envelops the Trinity hemmed 
with a gold orphrey inscribed with Sanctus running repetitive- 
ly through the composition like a ribbon. On the cornice that 
separates the frieze from the lunette is the Latin inscription 
taken from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (A.D. 1148): Foetus 
Homo, Factor Hominis, Factique Redemptor. Corporeus Redimo 
Corpora Corda Deus". ("I, God in the flesh, man's maker and re- 
deemer, Myself made man, redeem both body and soul.") 

On the west wall Our Lady of Sorrows is represented as a 

* Other models included Sargent's assistant Andrew O'Connor, 
Nicola d'lverna and a succession of Italian models, and George Rol- 
ler as Hosea, Nahum and Isaiah. 


29. John Singer Sargent Mural at south end showing Christian Por- 
tion with the Trinity, the Dogma of the Redemption and the relief 

votive figure above an altar behind a screen of lighted candles. 
The Virgin, which has an elaborate silver crown and halo, and 
is vested in a cope, stiff with embroidery, stands upon the 
crescent moon. The seven swords thrust into the heart of the 
Virgin typify the Seven Sorrows. 

The two panels Church and Synagogue in architectural frames 
on the opposite wall over the staircase were finally installed in 
1919 to complete Sargent's cycle. The Hebrew faith, which the 


30-31- Sargent Panels, The Synagogue (left), and The Church (right), 
over staircase 

32. Detail of Sargent's Frieze of the Prophets with Hosea in white 

33- Sargent Panel, 
Our Lady of Sorrows, 
on the west wall 

artist has sympathetically shown as the great forerunner of 
Christianity was regarded by medieval churchmen as having 
forfeited its high place through its failure to recognize the 
claim of Christ as the expected Messiah, and was accordingly 
represented as blind and dethroned; the Church itself was 
naturally depicted as having succeeded to both the vision and 
the leadership lost by the Jewish religion. This view was ex- 
pressed in the art of the Middle Ages by the opposition of two 
figures, the Synagogue, sightless and fallen; the Church, out- 
looking and triumphant. 


January 18, 1893 First Contract. Sargent was paid $i 5,000 for dec- 
oration of north and south end walls. 

1892-1894 North Wall lunette and ceiling painted on canvas in 
Edwin Abbey's studio at Fairford, Gloucestershire, and then 
exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. 

April 25, 1895 Unveiling Pagan End in Boston Public Library. 
The lunette, ceiling and frieze were transported to Boston 
and installed. The canvas was tacked to the edge of the rele- 
vant wall space and firmly stuck to the wall with a solution of 
white lead. 

December 5, 1895 Second Contract. Sargent was to be paid an 
additional $15,000 to be raised by subscription for the wall 
panels to join the two ends. 
February 1903 Unveiling Medieval End 
December 2.1,1916 Unveiling Medieval Ceiling 
October 5, 1919 Unveiling "Synagogue" and "Church" over 


In a copy of a letter in the Boston Athenaeum written from 
31 Tite Street, Chelsea, London, October 8, 1915, Sargent wrote 
to Josiah H. Benton, president of the Library trustees, describ- 
ing various problems of decorating the upper landing. The last 
paragraph reads : 

. . ."I have tried to make a good selection of Renaissance 
ornament throughout and not to do anything that would 
irritate the ghost of McKim. With the exception of some 
hints and warnings from a Belgian refugee, an architect of 
the name of Adrien Blomme, I have not consulted any 
architects, as I felt that Messrs. Fox & Gale were the only 
ones that I ought to consult. So I hope they will give me 
the benefit of their advice and criticism, or suggest a better 
scheme if mine will not work." 

(Thomas A. Fox collaborated with Sargent in several of his 
mural projects. Fox's papers are in the Boston Athenaeum.) 


35- Portrait of 
Joshua Bates, copy 
by Eden Upton 
Eddis (1812-1901), 
English painter, 
of his original oil 

36. Portrait of 
Benjamin Franklin 
by Joseph-Siffred 
Duplessis (1725- 
1802), in Cheverus 


> 1866 

37- Hiram Powers (1805- 
1873), bust of Jared Sparks 
(1789-1866), replica of the 

39- Thomas Ball (1819- 
1911), bust of Edward 
Everett (1794-1865), 1864 

38. Martin Millmore 
(1849-1883), bust of George 
Ticknor, 1791-1871 

40. Capt. Francis Derwent 
Wood, R.A., (1872-1926), 
bust of Henry James, 
(1843-1916), 1914 

42. Leopoldo Ansiglione 
(Italy, 1832-1899), Marble of 
Child and Swan 

41. Left. Horatio Greenough 
(1805-1852), bust of Christ 

43- Left, Antonio Canova 
(1/57-1822), marble copy after, 
of Venus, a pendant to the 
copy of the Venus de Medici 

44- Below. William Wetmore 
Story (1819-1895), Arcadian 
Shepherd Boy, 1855 



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